“Oliver Twist”, one of Dickens’ great social novels, depicts poverty and crime in the slums, as well as the wretched conditions in English workhouse. The workhouse scenes in the early chapters, and the later exploitation of Oliver by a gang of pickpockets, were bound up with current controversies over the Poor Laws and the care of abandoned children. Dickens’ recollections of his months as a child laborer gave authenticity to what might otherwise have been sentimental propaganda. Similarly, in dealing with the London under-world “Oliver Twist” had affinities with the crime stories of Bulwer and Ainsworth; but Dickens’ first-hand observation as court stenographer and reporter resulted in something quite different. There is no glorifying of criminals in the sinister Fagin or the brutal Sikes, though even they acquire a degree of human appeal when Dickens finally enters their minds to reveal how hallucinations and external impressions are mingled under stress of guilty terror.
For his plot, Dickens relied on the overworked theme of the missing heir; but he handled it with effective suspense and foreshadowing that disguised the implausible coincidences. He conferred literary validity upon grisly episodes of violence such as he had absorbed from “The Terrific Register”, a penny paper that he had devoured every week as a schoolboy. The conversations are unnatural because of a pretentious style of speech borrowed from the cheap theater, and Oliver’s inviolable saintliness is hard to credit; nevertheless, in spite of inflated rhetoric, the later scenes, culminating the deaths of Nancy, Sikes, and Fagin, generate compelling power. Dickens had discovered that the effect of terror did not have to depend on remote times and places, as existing in the reader’s own environment. “Oliver Twist” survives its handicaps of sentimentality and melodrama because it objectivizes a profound emotional state—the solitude felt by an individual who has no place within the framework of society. The dark cellars and garrets, the tottering tenements and hungry river currents, the moments of mob violence, all lend weird vividness to the theme of the social outcast.
The plot of the novel can be summarized thus. Oliver is born in an English paupers’ home. Starving and beaten when he asks for more gruel, the poor lad is finally bound out to works. Escaping this slavery, he goes to London where he comes under the eyes of Fagin the Jew, master teacher of pickpockets. He is caught by the police and placed in the home of Mrs. Brownlow. But Oliver is found by the gang and forced to accompany Sykes, the housebreaker. On his first assignment, Oliver enters te house to be burglarized to warn the inhabitants. He is shot as the other burglars are caught. Mrs. Maylie and her adopted daughter, Rose, care for Oliver. Eventually Mr. Brownlow again takes Oliver in. Fagin, Monks, Sykes, the street girl Nancy and others of the gang again try to get Oliver in their power but are foiled. Eventually all the gang come to bad ands and Oliver is freed of this years of hardship.